David Berman: Indie-rock singer who excelled at elaborate, world-weary lyrics

His band Silver Jews were highly acclaimed in the 1990s and he was also a published poet

Harrison Smith
Tuesday 20 August 2019 11:31 BST
Berman in a rare appearance onstage in 2006
Berman in a rare appearance onstage in 2006 (MediaPunch/Rex)

David Berman was an indie-rock poet whose hoarse baritone, country-tinged melodies and poignant lyrics about lost love, “MGM endings” and men with duct-tape shoes earned his band Silver Jews a devoted following for two decades.

With a scraggly beard, long, stringy hair and a penchant for large, square-framed sunglasses, Berman, who has died by suicide aged 52, was something of an oracular figure in indie rock, known for obsessing over lyrics that featured elaborate similes and a cockeyed, world-weary outlook. “I wanna be like water if I can/ ’Cause water doesn’t give a damn,” he sang in the chorus of “Horseleg Swastikas”. He was also a celebrated poet, publishing a collection, Actual Air, in 1999.

Berman was the leader and only consistent member of Silver Jews, which he formed in the late 1980s with his college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, of the rock band Pavement. Initially playing out of their apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, the group developed a bright, lo-fi sound that mixed country, rock and the occasional horn arrangement, anchored by Berman’s half-spoken singing. “Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign, I’ve got a point of view,” he declared in “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You”.

Among Berman’s most memorable lines was the opening couplet of “Random Rules” from American Water (1998), a record that unspooled like a long, strange trip across the countryside: “In 1984, I was hospitalised for approaching perfection; slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction.”

The album, music website Pitchfork wrote, was “the pinnacle of a certain strain of indie rock: smart but unpolished, grounded but opaque, the down-home sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the country side of the Rolling Stones executed by college boys raised on punk”.

David Craig Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1967. His parents divorced when he was seven years old. His mother became a teacher in Ohio, and David moved to the Dallas area with his father, Richard, a lawyer and lobbyist who was later dubbed “the booze and food industries’ weapon of mass destruction” by the US news programme 60 Minutes. David called his father’s identity “my gravest secret”, writing on his record label Drag City’s message board in 2009 that it was “worse than suicide” and “worse than crack addiction”. He was discontinuing the group, he wrote, because “this winter I decided that [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused”.

Berman attended the University of Virginia, where he met Malkmus and Nastanovich, and, after graduating in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in English, studied poetry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. While there, he sent a book’s worth of poems to The American Poetry Review. Each one was rejected, so he shifted his focus from poetry to rock music, despite scarcely knowing how to sing or play guitar.

“Like they used to say about [American football star] Joe Montana, he threw soft because he couldn’t throw hard,” Berman said in 2005. I couldn’t rock out harder than everybody, or overpower people with mastery like Jack White of the White Stripes, so why try? That’s why I’ve always worked harder on words.

He said he was a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan when, looking out the window, he spotted a sign reading “Silver Jewelry”, with the last letters blocked from view. The phrase Silver Jews also evoked groups such as the Silver Apples and the Silver Beetles, the latter an early name for the Fab Four.

The band’s full-length debut, Starlite Walker (1994), established Silver Jews as a darling of the indie rock scene, although some critics suggested they were little more than a footnote to Pavement, the influential rock band whose first album, Slanted and Enchanted (1992), was reportedly named by Berman.

Berman acknowledged struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and said he became so anxious during the recording of his second studio album, The Natural Bridge (1996), that he was hospitalised for sleep deprivation, an experience he likened to being “constantly on the line with God”.

Silver Jews’ other albums included Bright Flight (2001), a more country-oriented record made in Nashville, and Tanglewood Numbers (2005), released after Berman converted to Judaism and nearly died of an overdose in the hotel suite where former vice president Al Gore awaited the results of the 2000 presidential election. “I want to die where the presidency died,” Berman reportedly said at the time.

After recording Silver Jews’ final album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008), Berman performed one last show with the band, in a cave located approximately 300 feet under McMinnville, Tennessee, and then took a long hiatus from music.

Under the name Purple Mountains, he released a self-titled album last month with a backing band featuring members of the folk-rock group Woods. They had been due to begin touring this month. He was reportedly living in a small room above Drag City’s Chicago offices and told a pop culture website that he was experiencing “treatment-resistant depression”. He had survived at least one suicide attempt, in 2003, but said he was bracing himself for the tour after refusing to perform live for most of his career.

He is survived by his wife Cassie.

David Berman, musician, born 4 January 1967, died 7 August 2019

© Washington Post

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